Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Learning a foreign language: What do I know?

<st week I wrote about cultural assumptions that came up when chatting with my host family in Santiago, Chile. During my study abroad program, we also lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where we were exposed to a distinct version of the language we thought we knew.

Buenos Aires was the perfect foil to the Chilean culture we had grown comfortable in. Unlike Chileans, Argentines are stereotypically known for their booming personalities, inflated egos, and European fashion sense. While each region of Latin America has linguistic idiosyncrasies, Argentines empathically reject certain features of the Spanish language; for example the word vos replaces tú, and the “ll” sound is pronounced as “zhe” instead of the usual “yeh.” These minor distinctions are a way in which the country denies larger narratives associated with its continent. I apologize to the readers who are squirming at my unqualified generalizations, so let me turn to a topic on which I can claim greater expertise.

In Buenos Aires, I had the privilege of living with the most wonderfully eccentric woman I have ever experienced. This was best expressed in the sound of her voice, which I lamentably cannot capture here on this page. Instead, I’ll offer you some brief vignettes: one day I returned home to find her standing on the kitchen counter wearing short shorts, hair in big blue curlers – she was cleaning the cabinets. It was quite a spectacle, given that this woman is in her mid sixties. On weekend evenings we would often leave to meet friends at the same time, but she would unfailingly return home hours later than me. One day I wandered into her bedroom to retrieve a book, and tarot cards were strewn across her covers. At our program’s final banquet, she instigated and then dominated an extended conversation about the implications of shaving one’s pubic hair. We once met a man on a bus, and she convinced me that he was the love of my life.

Regardless of the context, for my host mother (who was more like a host crazy great aunt once removed) every other sentence was sprinkled with the same phrase. “I think that moonlight yoga class was the best thing that ever happened to me, but ¿qué sé yo? she would say, “what do I know?” Or, “I hate this filthy city, the streets are disgusting – but what do I know?” This rhetorical qualifier works in just about every situation; whether you are subjectively speculating or stating a fact, the perpetual question is “what do I know?”   

A similar phenomenon was implicit in another frequent exclamation: mira vos, look at you. The following scenarios were essentially interchangeable in that they all evoked the above reaction: putting on makeup, returning home drenched from a rainstorm that interrupted my run, waking up with a deformed eyelid from a swollen bug bite. “Look at you,” she’d say, head tilted and bobbing slightly. Yes, look at me.

Two important parts of language learning include thinking in the language and grasping its idiomatic nuances. When I got to that stage in the process, a funny thing started happening –these phrases shaped my thoughts. I’d make a comment during class discussion, but what I did I know? Someone would do something notable or unusual, and I’d think “look at you.”

When we returned to Chile for the program’s finale, I found myself having to unlearn these expressions, as they just weren’t part of the local lexicon. This meant another small shift in thought. And when I landed back in the states, the world grew as I nestled back into a language where I can articulate myself with greater depth. Now, when I remember the people who shared their homes and their lives with me, I remember what they taught me about their particular version of Spanish. That is, I remember how they briefly transformed my pattern of thought.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *